By Paul Carlino
My family and I just returned from a year-long adventure during which we drove from Alexandria through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and then back. The trip was filled with as many experiences and memories as there are fish in the sea. Some of them are like smelly, dead things that wash up on the beach so that we only want to cover our nose and look long enough to see what it is before moving on. But others are so beautiful that we feel fundamentally changed at our core so we watch until the tide inevitably pushes us away.
Now, as we come to terms with reintegrating ourselves back into our former routines – the kids are back in school, we are back at work, and our iPhone calendars are crammed with appointments to keep – we wonder if we didn’t ruin our lives.
What’s the worst that could happen?
When my wife and I began to tell our friends, family, co-workers, and bosses that we planned to take a year off and drive to Mexico and Central America with our 13 year old daughter and 11 year old son, they asked whether we wanted to lie down with a cold compress across our foreheads. They said this with their eyes. The next thing they asked, with their words, was whether it was safe.
We knew it was a crazy idea. The thought of driving across a continent in our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van with two kids who could barely sit at the dinner table without arguing over whether the sky was blue didn’t promise to deliver the state of perfect quietude. And oh, by the way, my father taught me everything I know about car mechanics, but he was in finance, so he didn’t have many lessons to impart. But the journey did offer some hope of liberation, because, to be perfectly honest, this wasn’t all about the kids.
Yes, we hoped the journey would help them to view the world through a wider lens than they were afforded by roaming the halls of the ACPS system. But after fifteen years of my wife and me being chained to our desks and only released to frolic and play on weekends, a gap year, a mini-retirement, or whatever you want to call it, was as appealing as Russell Crowe’s unique blend of leadership qualities and good looks in the movie “Gladiator.” As Bon Scott sings in the classic AC/DC song “Down Payment Blues” – “doing nothing means a lot to me.”
And it wasn’t doing nothing, exactly, that we were planning. It was a break from “life” to experience the world, and spend time with each other and our own selves at our own pace and on our own terms. What’s the worst that could happen?
Regarding safety . . . well, we didn’t know. We read the same news stories as everyone else of daylight machine gun battles in the border towns of Mexico and gruesome beheadings by narco-traffickers. And naturally, from the time we began planning our trip in earnest right up until our August 1, 2015, departure date, my dreams were plagued with visions of my wife and kids being kidnapped and ransomed and me being forced to perform the Macarena on the street corner in my underwear for loose change.
Our concerns about safety were alleviated, however, by social media: blogs and Facebook groups. We followed a large community of people – they called themselves overlanders – who were taking the same paths we planned to travel. And we felt that by following a few common sense guidelines – don’t drive at night, don’t wear flashy clothes or drive a flashy car, and don’t leave your electronics or other valuables in plain view – we could keep ourselves in one piece and our belongings in our own possession.
In the end, we drove nearly 15,000 miles, crossed seven borders twice, and often found ourselves on stretches of road where we hoped we would spot a car coming in the opposite direction so we knew we were eventually going to get someplace. We never felt physically threatened, never had our van broken into, and never paid a bribe. My son did have his favorite shirt taken from our laundry line one night and my flip flops walked away from where I left them on the beach, but those petty things could just as well happen at Prince William Forest Park as in a foreign country.
The sun, the sea, and the rodeo cowboy
We crossed the border into Mexico at Laredo, Texas, on August 26, 2015, with an exchange of friendly smiles rather than gunfire and spent our first three weeks in Mexico camping in our van, which we named Wesley, in the central northern highlands. The days were hot enough so that the nights felt cool and the stars, unblemished by artificial lights, revealed the vastness of the sky and of our undertaking. Being new to the country, the realities painted by the media versus the ones that we were discovering were conflated. Under the former, simple things that we hardly gave a second thought to at home like parking our van and going to the market became a dramatic event because we weren’t sure the van would be there when we came back. The lack of street signs and the frequency of unpaved roads made us wonder if we were ever going in the right direction. Everyone had a sinister look.
But instead of villains we met friendly people. In the tiny village of Hidalgo, where we eventually realized we had nothing to fear anyway, a woman offered to keep an eye on our van while we went off in search of a restaurant. A family invited us to join their barbeque after our daughter helped them set up their tent when they arrived late at night and without a clue. After overhearing us planning a trip to Monterrey, the manager at our campground offered to give us a tour of the city on his one day off. The owner drove us into town rather than let us take the bus because he was heading in that direction, sort of. This all happened in the first week and it’s not because all the friendly Mexicans live in Hidalgo. The entire country was like this.
In the colonial city of Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage site where colorful houses on cobblestone streets are stacked along the sides of a ravine, we camped in a space that doubled as a junkyard and met our first pair of fellow overlanders. They were also just beginning their journey south and although we had almost nothing in common – they were young, childless, and Canadian – we learned their dog’s name and kept in touch during the year exchanging information about places to stay and things to do.
It was the same camaraderie we felt with many of the travelers we met. The commonality of the open road binding us together as kindred spirits despite the reality that they wouldn’t have looked twice at an old, bald guy like me if we passed each other at Trader Joe’s.
When it came time to leave the highland flats and turn the reins of our trusty metal steed in the direction of the central Pacific Coast we drove for two days along a mountain road that climbed straight into the clouds and turned like a pile of spaghetti. It was slow going, but we made it and from that time forward we never doubted that Wesley could get us there, wherever there might happen to be.
After arriving at our beach paradise of Zihuatanejo, which we later learned was the retirement destination of the escaped convicts played by Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” we stood on the corner scratching our heads about where to stay. The van was out of the question unless we wanted to roast like peppers. A man approached and introduced himself as Nacho, a retired rodeo cowboy who earned his pesos as the rental manager of a two-bedroom apartment with air conditioning and a stunning beach view.
After some friendly banter and a shot or two of tequila, we negotiated Nacho down from his opening salvo of 1,300 pesos a night (about $75) but still remained 200 pesos from a deal. Rather than split the difference, however, Nacho took a big wooden die off the bookshelf and handed it to my son, J.
“You are four persons,” he said to us. “If you roll that number, you pay your price. If not, you pay mine.”
When J bounced that die across the white tile floor and we all saw it settle on four we jumped and cheered like we’d just won all the guacamole we could eat in a lifetime rather than saving a few dollars a night on our rent.
After staying for a week, we decided we would not be able to meet my in-laws in Belize at the end of the month. Mexico was too much fun, and just really, awfully big, to leave yet. Instead, we picked our way down the coast – surfing, fishing, and building sand castles.
One morning in Playa Escobilla, on a protected stretch of beach patrolled by sand crabs and wild dogs, we watched tens of thousands of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles emerge from the surf like the prehistoric beasts they are and drop hundreds of thousands of eggs into holes they dug in the sand. As we danced around the would-be mothers, trying to avoid being bumped at our ankles, our guide recounted the moonlit night when he decided that rather than exploit the creatures by stealing their eggs and killing them for their meat he would be their protector.
One afternoon in San Agustinillo, we watched a group of fishermen who had been out for two nights in a 16-foot motorboat gut and clean their catch of more than 20 sharks on the beach. We tried to buy a fully intact shark jaw from them but they said it was too much work for them to cut it out. Later, we saw them drinking beer with shark guts on their clothes.
By day we got pummeled by the roaring surf of the Pacific and by night we tried to avoid being pummeled by falling coconuts in our campground. But even when you are having the time of your life, the heat melts you like a stick of butter in a frying pan. We headed back to the mountains.
We based in Oaxaca City for a month and walked through cemeteries decorated in marigolds and sweet with the smell of burning copal incense during the Day of the Dead celebrations. Depending on the personality of the deceased’s family the event could be a raucous dance party or a quiet sit-down affair.
We took weekend trips to frozen mineral waterfalls and day trips to crumbling pre-Hispanic archeological sites, where the kids learned things without knowing they were learning anything.
It was in Oaxaca also that we enrolled the kids in a local school and shared their first-day excitement to be with kids their own age and lamented their second-day lack of enthusiasm when they each told us they didn’t want to go to school that day. It felt just like home. But they did go, and they made friends and had play dates, and it was a sad parting when we finally left.
We woke to the sounds of howling monkeys, wedding parties, and endless exploding fireworks, and fell asleep to the sounds of howling monkeys, wedding parties, and endless exploding fireworks. But of all the outstanding memories, the event that most impacted me happened while waiting for a parade to begin.
September 16th is celebrated as a day of national patriotism in Mexico because it is the anniversary of when a priest named Miguel Hidalgo summoned his parishioners to the church for what has come to be known as “La Grita de la Independencia” – a shout out for the peasants to seek freedom from their Spanish oppressors. Hidalgo was captured by said oppressors and beheaded for his leftist leanings, but his actions sparked a revolution that eventually resulted in an independent Mexican republic.
As we sat along Zihuatanejo’s main street in anticipation of this celebration of national patriotism and the drunken saturnalia that was said to follow, I noticed a couple sitting across the street in wooden folding chairs. The man had a girl of about five-years old who I guessed was his granddaughter sitting on his knee. As the sounds of the drums and horns that marked the start of the parade floated to us from the near distance, he gave her some money and she jumped down excitedly and ran through the door of a nearby store. While she was away the man took his wife’s hand in his own and they chatted and smiled until the girl came back, resumed her place on the throne that was her grandfather’s lap, and shared her chips with them.
Whatever stereotypes I still held after three weeks in country began to crumble into tiny pieces at this moment as I realized that this was not a place to be afraid of. When you peeled back the layers of stereotype, the people were the same as any I had known. They sat in wooden folding chairs. They enjoyed a patriotic parade. They had homes and they loved their family. Evidence of their normalcy was all around us.
People, like our turtle tour guide, strived for personal growth. Others wore western style clothes with English writing advertising U.S. corporations on their T-shirts. Some even wore Cincinnati Bengals jerseys. People went to work, and worked hard – even on Saturdays. While an inordinate number of jobs required people to walk around with machetes, their plenitude didn’t alarm us.
Everyone was friendly. My arm would get tired from waving back to all the people who waved to me each day. One morning in a town where I knew no one, a car honked as I walked along the street. I turned to see what the matter was and there were eight people, including the driver, hanging out the taxi window, smiling, and waving at me like I was made out of chocolate.
After the parade we ventured over to say hello to Nacho as he dismounted from his horse. After some friendly banter and a few shots of tequila, he reduced our rent another 200 pesos. So long as we stayed in the apartment he didn’t have to stand in front of it and try to get someone else to rent it, he said. He was losing a commission by charging us a lower rent but it was worth it because he was buying his freedom.
We could relate. We were beginning to understand what freedom was worth.
You can’t measure freedom in pesos
We saved money for the trip for seven years. We didn’t have to alter our lifestyle much because both my wife and I are frugal spenders by nature – I’d never met anyone cheaper than my parents until I met hers. We didn’t have to break a caffeine habit because we didn’t have one. We didn’t have to cancel our cable subscription because we didn’t have one. We didn’t have to let the footman go because we didn’t have one.
By the time we left we had banked enough money to travel comfortably for the year and not lose our house in the process. But we didn’t realize the cost of the trip would be more than monetary. The price of reintegration has been our biggest expense, and we are paying it now.
The trip didn’t originate from a sense that we had to get away. We weren’t running away from anything. We liked our lives. We had a cozy home in a nice community with good friends and a comfortable lifestyle. I had thirty-four T-shirts and an ice maker.
Now that we’ve returned, however, having all these clothes seems extravagant. I managed with five shirts for a year, but now I have one for each day of the month. I wouldn’t trade in the icemaker, and we still have a cozy home in a nice community with good friends and a comfortable lifestyle, but we feel weighted down by all our stuff and constrained by all the things we need to do. And we miss spending time with each other.
But we are not complaining, we are not looking for sympathy, and we are thankful for how fortunate we are. It’s just that we yearn for the simple life when we could read, write, play, or drink beer when we wanted. And we miss the promises of the open road.
Each night as my wife and I tuck the kids into bed, I pull out my notes from a year ago and let the kids know where we were and we talk about what we remember from that day. It helps to reconnect us to each other and what we accomplished after the stresses of another day at work and at school. But don’t think this means we are living in the past. We spend a lot of time talking about our next escape as well.